THE MAGIC OF CUP FOOTBALL COMES TO AUSTRALIA
Australian club football will enter an exciting era when the keenly anticipated FFA Cup kicks off in four suburban grounds this week.
By Philip Micallef
'Old soccer' finally gets an opportunity to mix it with the 'new football' in a national knockout that could become a permanent fixture in Australia's sporting landscape if everything goes according to plan.
Twenty-two teams from every state and territory, among them some clubs that played a key role in the establishment of our game, have emerged from a long qualifying phase to join the A-League's 10 clubs in the competition proper.
Most football fans from across Australia are intrigued by the cup concept and would be expecting the competition to be a knockout in more ways than one.
The tiny and unassuming Wanderers Oval in Broadmeadow (NNSW), Kingston Heath Soccer Complex in Cheltenham (Victoria), Cromer Park in Dee Why (NSW) and Goodwin Park in Yeronga (Queensland) will create history when they simultaneously host the first four matches of the round of 32.
The remaining 12 ties will be played over the next three weeks.
The game in Australia has been crying out for a cup competition to supplement the A-League for a number of years.
As the league kept taking small but strong steps forward, the sentimentalists among us have yearned for a knockout tournament that could provide the occasional dose of romance and magic.
Now that it is a reality, the FFA Cup should appease the Asian Football Confederation which requires every top country to stage an annual knockout competition.
The FFA Cup will also give the modern game a chance to acknowledge its past in a spirit of camaraderie.
There are still many who rightly or wrongly have not forgotten the so-called "ethnic cleansing" of the game to make way for the A-League.
The game's rebirth in 2005 has created more than a technical and organisational disparity between the elite A-League and its semi-professional and amateur counterparts.
Hopefully the cup will bridge that gap and bring both parties closer together for the good of our game.
Which is why it was disappointing to learn of Perth Glory's pull-out from a pre-season match with Sydney Olympic at Belmore last week.
Glory claimed its players had no opportunity to adequately prepare for the match and stormed off the ground two hours before kick-off.
Glory may have had its reasons to pull out of the game yet the timing of the incident, which came days before the FFA Cup kickoff, was unfortunate.
The club admitted that the walk-out was a setback in its preparation for the forthcoming A-League, where competition is expected to be as tough and uncompromising as ever.
While the salary cap has created an equilibrium in the league, the cup is expected to thrive on its inequalities and disparities.
Everybody dreams of a giant-killing act from one of the National Premier Leagues clubs at the expense of its professional opponent.
Shock results are the fabric of such competitions, none more so than in England, Germany, Spain and France where the FA Cup, DFB-Pokal, Copa del Rey and Coupe de France are treated with the utmost respect by the fans if not by some of the biggest clubs which have higher priorities.
When Broadmeadow Magic takes on Brisbane Strikers, South Springvale faces South Cardiff, Manly United locks horns with Sydney Olympic and Olympic FC challenges Melbourne Knights on Tuesday night, players and fans of the eight teams involved no doubt will have justifiable dreams of glory right from the very first whistle.
There have been several attempts to create a knockout tournament over the last 35 years or so but the concept never caught the imagination of a sceptical public.
It is too early to tell if the cup's modern version will succeed where several others have failed.
Certainly the midweek evening fixtures will test the fans' resolve.
With the full backing of FFA, Westfield, television and the media, augmented by a prevailing air of genuine goodwill, our game will never get a better chance of cherishing a respected knockout competition.
FFA will foot the bill for the away teams' travel expenses while the home teams will meet the costs of holding the matches but they will get to keep the gate money.
So everything is in place for the competition's grand entry.
Of course, the bottom line is that nothing will stir the fans' emotions more than a shock result involving an A-League club but it does not necessarily have to be so.
The fact that little known Stirling Lions from suburban Perth will get an opportunity to entertain A-League champion Brisbane Roar at its little ground and former National Soccer League champion South Coast Wolves will be back in the national limelight when it hosts 2013 A-League champion Central Coast Mariners is enough to whet the appetite of even the most discerning fans.
The event has been formatted in such a way that there will be a presence from outside the A-League in the latter stages of the competition that reaches its climax with the cup final on 16 December.
A totally open draw would have been great but the piloted exercise is understandable in the present circumstances, given the competition is still in its infancy.
So let's all enjoy this flight of fancy and see where it takes us.